In today’s Business Standard, Pranab Bardhan in his article “India — A case of bad governance“, makes a number of very important points.
The article is very instructive. Unlike many hagiographic accounts of India, it honestly states that India suffers from misgovernance — and what is more, baldly places the responsibility where it belongs in his conclusion: “The fault thus lies in us as much as in those who govern us.”
Bardhan notes that “dignity politics” is one of the debilitating factors. He writes:
. . . even when the [lower classes and castes] come to power, the issue of basic social services gets low priority in comparison with larger symbolic issues of dignity politics (particularly in North India). A perceived slight in the speech of a higher-caste political leader resented by a lower-caste one will usually cause much more of an uproar than if the same leader’s policy neglect keeps hundreds of thousands of children severely malnourished in the same lower caste. The issue of job reservation for backward castes catches the public imagination more fervently than that of child mortality or school dropouts that afflict the majority in those communities. Thus the demand from below for those basic social services is as inarticulate as their supply from above is deficient.
About the demand and supply of basic social services — a missing market of sorts — I too have concluded that the demand arises from an awareness of what is
excepted expected, which awareness depends on the basic education system. Public education — by which I mean the education of the public about matters of civic, economic and social importance — is missing. I think that the focus of the government-controlled education system is on raising the peak education level of an elite (the IITs, IIMs, IISc, etc) rather than raising the education level of the citizenry broadly. My cynical conjecture is that the political leaders do understand that they their feet will be held to the fire if the people become aware of the misgovernance.
A lot of books with rousing titles such as “Imagining India” and “India Unbounded” have become hits. Most of them studiously avoid mentioning the dysfunctional — perhaps out of concern for sales figures or perhaps from a fear of displeasing the political powers that be. What we need to do is to look at issues that most would rather sweep under the rug and pretend that they don’t exist. Corruption, for instance, is widely regarded as a problem but I would argue that it is a symptom of deeper causes which are intertwined with other deep causes which form the basis for a whole host of symptoms such as corruption, poor educational system, lack of accountability, the persistence of social conflict, etc.
Bardhan notes that India’s heterogeneity poses problems that don’t arise in more homogeneous societies:
In very recent years, there are some faint signs that good governance is being rewarded by the electorate in some areas. Collective action in demanding and ensuring good governance is, however, particularly tricky in India on account of the extreme heterogeneity of social and economic interests involved, which always makes unified movement on goal formulation, agenda setting and policy pressure difficult to achieve for diverse groups, who in anticipation of this difficulty often opt for populist handouts and clientelistic arrangements instead. As a society we are much more diverse than, say, Japan or China, and coordination on most issues is more difficult here than in those countries. Sociologists have pointed out that extreme social heterogeneity in India is also a major cause of hierarchical industrial relations with attendant mutual distrust and labour supervision problems, and relatively low labour productivity in Indian factories.
I think that the way out of this problem is for the state to be totally blind to the markers of heterogeneity. For instance, the state must not ever inquire about the personal attributes of a person that have no bearing on social services. Thus, the state must not discriminate on the basis of religion. Whether or not a citizen is eligible for economic assistance, for example, should depend on the merits of the case and not on what that person’s religious affiliation is. The moment the state privileges one group over another, it invites the social evil of group-based divisive politics and, as Bardhan puts it, “populist handouts and clientelistic arrangements.”
India’s governance is arguably bad. The party that has been almost exclusively in control of that misgovernance is the Congress party which has been the fiefdom of the Nehru-Gandhi family. The incompetence of the party and that family has been demonstrated beyond the shadow of a doubt. But as I have argued before, they are not there through some divine edict; they are there because the people of India find misgovernance by the Congress and the Nehru-Gandhi family acceptable. The fault, dear reader, lies in Indians and not in the leaders that they freely elect.